There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his backup crew at One Judiciary Square publicly say, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” suggesting that, to a certain extent, they regret their questionable use of nonprofit organizations to help raise funds for special events and apparent political activities, as reported by LL (1/26) and other media. But sources close to the mayor’s office say that privately Williams and his team are thumbing their noses at the press and District residents.
“They think they are invincible,” says one of several sources interviewed.
This sense of security may come from Williams’ polling numbers, which continue to show a favorability rating of well over 60 percent, despite the lack of significant evidence of any major government reform and an administration that clearly still is in transitionwith several key government agencies, including the Department of Public Works and the Department of Human Services, without permanent directors.
When they elected him to repair the municipal service-delivery system, voters also expected Williams to restore honesty to their government. During his campaign, the former chief financial officer cast himself as Mr. Clean, vowing to maintain the highest ethical standards. He even signed a pledge at the corner of 14 and U Streets NW, outside the Reeves Center, before nearly a dozen civic leaders and nationally known good-government champion Ralph Nader.
Yet, almost from the beginning, the Williams administration seemed to have taken some cues from that of his predecessor, Mayor-for-Life Marion S.Barry Jr. There may not be reports of the executive carousing or of crack-smoking parties in hotel rooms, but the number of apparent ethical lapses is worrisome. Although the administration may seem to be sailing through clear blue skies, perceived ethics violations are the stuff of thunderstorms, likely to cause Williams’ base of core supporters in Wards 1, 2, 3, and 6 to run for cover. (Ask former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly about free-falling and the feeling of an incumbent landing at an abysmal 13 percent of the vote during a re-election bid.)
The first incident raising an ethical question arose during Williams’ mayoral campaign, via his $40,000 so-called consulting contract from Arthur Andersen & Co., a firm doing business with the city at the time. Williams didn’t disclose the deal until after the electionand the press inquiries. The city’s campaign-finance laws prohibit District government employees from receiving gifts or other things of value from companies doing business with the city; they also require candidates to report to the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) all contributions to either themselves or their campaigns. Williams technically was not a government employee during the campaign. But he had been the city’s chief financial officer, and he had not listed the Arthur Andersen contract on his campaign’s disclosure form. The OCF cited Williams with failing to modify, as required by law, his financial disclosure statement. He pleaded ignorance and paid a $1,000 fine; today, he says the incident was the result of “trying to do things yourself.”
Then came the mayor’s use of government employees and government resources for his campaign to change the city’s home rule charter to provide for a partially elected and partially appointed D.C. Board of Education. The Office of Campaign Finance ruled again that Williams had violated city laws. He apologized, saying that he had been following the advice of the city’s corporation counsel.
This time, the Williams administration confesses that it has maintained cozy relations with contractors doing business with the city. It’s also clear that at least one staffer in the mayor’s inner sanctum has used a menagerie of nonprofit organizations to mask the administration’s fundraisingsome of it allegedly for political activities.
Mark Jones, the person leading this latest ethics fiasco and the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, said in a written statement given to LL last week that his “intentions were to assist the administration in carrying out one of its most significant mission [sic]bring people together to support the cities [sic] priorities.”
In an interview with LL, Williams said that the failure to attend to details invites the “appearance of a conflict.” But he added that once all the information is provided, he is certain nothing improper or illegal will have been proved”If there is, it would be de minimus.”
And Williams boasted that he was “proud of the fact that we’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars” for worthy causes. He said he was happy that the “resurgence of the city” has led corporations and businesses to want to contribute to these efforts.
Until last week, sources say, Jones allowed at least one stafferDennis Adamsfrom Lottery Technologies Enterprises (LTE), which holds the largest contract with the D.C. Lottery, to work in his office in the mayor’s suite; the formal procedure to secure the aid of the LTE employee had not been followed. Jones also used, without following the standard Office of Personnel process, two of the city’s lottery employeesDaniel Rim and Vivian Byrdduring this same period, say executive-branch sources. And, following his penchant for cutting cornersacting in “haste,” as he calls itJones bypassed normal District government vehicles for sponsoring special events, employing the services of several nonprofit organizations.
In preparation for the recent inaugural activities, Jones hit up several small businesses and corporations, including Washington Gas, PEPCO, Comcast, Coca-Cola, Crawford Management, Technical Engineering and Applications Management, and Unlimited Security Inc., writing letters on government stationery and using his government title to ask them to make contributions of between $25,000 and $50,000. The money was earmarked to help fund the mayor’s inaugural activities, including a reception on Inauguration Day at the John A. Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Donors were led to believe that they would receive tickets for prime seats to the inaugural parade in the official District government viewing box, according to executive-branch sources involved with the distribution of tickets.
PEPCO provided $5,000; Coca-Cola, $25,000; and the largest donation$35,000came from Comcast, which recently purchased District Cablevision. Technical Engineering and Applications Management, a firm that offers computer software and hardware assistance and has a staff of two full-time and five part-time employees, forked over $1,000. Former D.C. Councilmember H.R. Crawford’s company, Crawford Management, contributed $1,000, according to documents provided by Jones.
Nancy Moses, spokesperson for PEPCO, disputes the amount the city says her company donated: “It was more than that, but I am not at liberty to disclose the actual amount.” She says that she received the memo signed by Jones, who requested that the check be made out to a nonprofit organization, the Urban Assistance Fund Inc. “It’s not unusual that a member of a board of an organization will do the soliciting but then ask that the check be written to the organization,” she notes.
“We thought the mayor was hosting this perhaps in honor of this organization,” Moses continues, saying that she was told that the money was for “signage, name tags, badges, that sort of stuff.” PEPCO did receive 10 inaugural passes, which Moses says “went to employees and their families.”
Crawford, for his part, says he stayed away from the inaugural functions because he was completely disgusted with the “mayor’s people.” Government sources say that Crawford had hoped to receive a sizable number of tickets to permit his staff and family to see the inaugural parade. Instead, he received only two tickets and told Williams’ folks to “stick them up their asses,” says one of those sources, who also is close to Crawford and privy to the details of his transactions with the Williams administration.
The Urban Assistance Fund, which received the inaugural contributions on behalf of Jones and the mayor, is headed by A. Bobby Spence. On July 15, 2000, Spence spoke at a Ward 7 advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) meeting, describing his organization as one that “addresses the needs of underprivileged and disadvantaged individuals throughout the D.C. Metropolitan area. According to minutes from that meeting, Spence also said that his group “fills the gap created when laws were passed that eliminated the distribution of undesignated United Way funds to nonprofit groups that provide assistance to the needy.”
It was no accident that Spence chose ANC 7B for his presentation; it regularly has one of the highest voter turnouts in the city and is the area where the draft-Williams campaign was launched. Spence appeared to be looking for an opening.
In the spring, Spence had met Jones at a fundraiser for local kids. Jones says Spence told him that he himself had been a foster childwhich has become the new mayoral password: Flash your welfare card, recite your saddest tale, and voilà. Spence said that he admired the mayor and wanted to help out, that he could put his nonprofit organization at the city’s disposal, Jones recalled in an interview with LL on Jan. 29. Jones says he and Spence became friends. In a few short months, a man who had not been on the radar of anyone in the city government was now serving as a conduit for fundraising being done by Jones and others associated with the mayor.
The Williams administration also used the Urban Assistance Fund to receive donations for its inaugural reception and for the mayor’s December holiday party, said Jones in the same interview.
“We were eating crab cakes and shrimp, and I said, ‘This is real nice.’ We hadn’t had anything like that since the ’70s,” says one government source who attended the holiday party at the D.C. Armory. The party was ostensibly for kids, but sources who attended say that there were no children there.
The use of nonprofit organizations permits the mayor’s office to mask its fundraising, circumventing immediate disclosure of the administration’s activities. By law, nonprofits are required to make available to the public only their annual tax returns and corporate reports.
There wasn’t any written agreement between the mayor’s office and the Urban Assistance Fund. In fact, when LL first requested information, on Monday, Jan. 22, about inaugural funding activities, neither Jones nor anyone else in the Williams administration could provide an accurate accounting of the amount of money raised in the mayor’s name. No one was able to say exactly who had authorized the solicitation or how much had actually been spent for the reception, tickets, and other related activities. It wasn’t until three days later that LL received partial answers to her questions. On Friday, Jan. 26, Jones and other officials in the Williams administration still could not provide a full accounting of how the funds had been spent or who had authorized the solicitation. Furthermore, Jones had just learned, only minutes before his meeting with LL, that the Urban Assistance Fund was in violation of a D.C. regulation; it was doing business in the city without being registered, as required, with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).
Gina Douglas, a DCRA spokesperson, told LL as much on Wednesday, Jan. 24. She could not find a listing for the organization at all in the city’s database. Jones says his friendship with Spence may have accounted for his “failure to do due diligence” in checking out the nonprofit’s credentials. He also failed to notify PEPCO and other donors that they had given money to a company violating city laws. Moses said she was just learning from LL that the Urban Assistance Fund was not registered with the DCRA.
Jones also used as a fundraising conduit the For the Kids Foundation. He had helped launch the nonprofit in 1999, while serving as deputy director at the D.C. Lottery. Founding board members include Joe Yeldell, a longtime political operative; Richard “Dickey” Carter, who has for many years held a contract to remove trash from District-government agencies; and Willem Pollak. Sources close to Jones say that for a time some of the For the Kids Foundation business was being carried out from his lottery officea claim Jones denies.
Meanwhile, Adams, who Jones told LL last week was merely “an acquaintance,” is now being characterized as a “friend.” Adams and Bradley Farrar, a former lottery employee who worked with Jones when he was at that agency, have each registered Internet domains using variations of the mayor’s name: mayorwilliams.com and tonywilliams.com. Asked on Monday, Jan. 29, whether he was concerned about this effort, Williams called it a “scam. Some people did the same thing with [Al] Gore and [Joseph] Lieberman. It’s just so they can get money.”
The purchase by associates of the mayor’s deputy chief of staff of the Internet domains could effectively force the mayor or others interested in using the Williams name on the Internet to come to the duo for permissionwhich means not only money but access.
“Both Dennis and Farrar do that for potential political campaigns and/or activities, so they have entree into the political process when [the mayor’s re-election campaign] gets under way,” Jones said in a statement released last week to LL. He claims he didn’t ask Adams and Farrar to establish the Internet domains. But he thinks it’s all good, especially because the owners are known to him.
Williams does not see the fundraising by Jones and others in the same dark light as the Internet “scams.” Instead of putting a complete halt to such activities, Williams simply is calling for the delivery of quarterly reports to detail what his administration is doing and where the money has been spent.
“These are people [in the administration] who don’t think they are doing anything wrong,” says another executive-branch source.
Cecily Montgomery, executive director of the Office of Campaign Finance, said on Friday, Jan. 29, that following LL’s story and a report by WRC-TV Channel 4’s Tom Sherwood, she had launched yet another review of the mayor’s fundraising activities. The mayor himself has Robert Rigsby, the city’s chief lawyer, also reviewing Jones’ activities. Rigsby is the guy whose legal opinion sanctioned the mayor’s use of government employees in the runup to the school board election last summer.
These episodes suggest an administration that has repeatedly failed to pay sufficient attention to the ethical appearances of its conduct. More important, they send the message that the mayor intends to build his political machine, pumping in more cash to his already cash-rich campaign coffers at any costs. This kind of fundraising emits a malodor that citizens longing for good government find difficult to countenance. LL can’t hold her nose tight enough.
A couple of other things: Jones says he finally is a District resident; he moved into town in December. “It’s so recent I can understand how some people didn’t know.” And as to those charges that he tried to back-stab his boss, Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer, surreptitiously trying to oust him, Jones pleads innocent.
“I am ambitious. Do I want to move up the food chain? Absolutely,” says Jones. “Most people who say they don’t want their boss’s job are being less than honest.
“But do I want to oust [Omer]? No. If he leaves, do I want his job? Absolutely,” continues Jones. “I want to grow. I want opportunity.”
Given this kind of unabashed ambition, raise your hand if you think Jones and the Williams administration won’t be reciting yet another round of mea culpas sooner rather than later. Jonetta Rose Barras
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.